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Meet Claire Mongeau and Julie Otieno – founders of M-Shule, an AI-powered SMS-based EdTech Startup

by Milicent Atieno

In the old days, there was a clear line defining home learning and school learning. However, these days, the line is quite blurred as there is so much content online drawn from school-based learning and used by learners from the comfort of their homes or offices. For that to happen, one needs a reliable internet connection, and M-Shule is cognizant of the fact that most students across Africa lack this access.

M-Shule, a Kenyan-based startup, has come up with innovative ways to bridge the digital divide between most learners across Africa and their counterparts in the developed nations. While typically e-learning would require an internet connection and at least a smartphone; if tablet, laptop, or desktop computer is not an option. M-Shule adds one more device to that list, feature phones.

That is right, M-Shule remote learning platform can be conducted on just about any phone; lack of internet and smart features notwithstanding. Unlike most EdTech innovations whose products mainly depend on internet connectivity and assumptions that everyone has a smart device, with M-Shule all you need is at least a feature phone and you never have to worry about mobile data.

The startup is the brainchild of Claire Mongeau (CEO) and Julie Otieno (CTO) at the tail end of 2016. The duo decided to come up with an EdTech platform capable of giving African learners AI-powered personalized remote learning experience via SMS.

m-shuleI worked in education for about six years in India, U.S.A, and Kenya, where I realized that everywhere parents and students were investing so much time and energy into education, but there just weren’t always the best tools available to them,” said Mongeau.

Together [with Otieno] we realized that there were ways to make the best innovations accessible in the mass market, as long as we met users where they are in terms of accessible technology.”

M-Shule has just completed a trial run involving 400 students across some 15 local schools in Kenya. Their system is being populated by learning materials drawn from the government-approved national curriculum, which they can now deliver to students from anywhere via SMS. However, their database is currently facing a challenge as the Kenya government is planning to overhaul the old curriculum and place a new one. This transition is not yet complete, which means M-Shule might have to work, then delete, and work again to upload the new curriculum.

The startup is now positioning itself to expand across Kenya before the end of 2018 rapidly. It has an initial target of reaching one million student subscribers across the East Africa region in five years’ time.

The duo says the lessons are tailored to each student’s needs, as it is backed by an AI technology that recognizes each student and customizes learning material specific to the need of each one. The AI also tracks the students learning process on the platform, analyses their performance to better recommend to them the most appropriate learning materials that will help them improve in areas where they have some shortcomings.

Mongeau firmly believes that it is the element of personalization that will improve learning for all the students. A stark contrast to a classroom setup where both fast and slow learners are expected to grasp the same level of knowledge from a class session taught in a standard format. This strategy will reduce the pressure of failing in school, and thus prevent the slow learners from becoming demotivated.

Personalizing learning support to fit the needs of every individual learner is core to M-Shule’s mission… We use artificial intelligence algorithms to automatically analyze students’ levels of mastery, and then deliver lessons that meet and grow their competency level. By doing so, we ensure that students improve and advance to the next level at their own pace.” Explains Mongeau.

M-Shule has so far received financial backing and other forms of support from various international bodies including the Engineers without Borders Canada [PDF] and the South Africa based accelerator Injini. The startup also bagged the Nairobi-leg of the Seedstars World and was the first runner-up at the Global EdTech Startup Awards.

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